How and when might live poker return?

I don’t know about you folks, but I’m really starting to miss playing live poker. Sitting around a table, shuffling chips, talking s**t. Drinking too much coffee. The steady, mellow pace that can make 12 hours pass before you’ve noticed. I love it, I miss it, and it looks unlikely any of us will get to play any time soon. I’ve been thinking about what it’s going to look like when we finally do go back and today I’m going to try to organize some of those thoughts and maybe start a conversation about them.

Live poker is, unfortunately, a fantastic way to spread illness. We sit around a table all day, touching our faces, eating and drinking, and then touching cards and chips and passing them around. We sit shoulder to shoulder and breathe in one another’s faces. Every thirty minutes, a new dealer pushes in and takes the seat at the center of the table, facing the players in the three through six seats at not much over a one meter distance.

In the context of an international tournament festival, a bunch of factors make all this even worse. We’ve traveled from all over the world, on planes, through airports, and in taxis, coming into contact with countless people along the way. We’re stressed out, jet-lagged, not eating well, and not sleeping enough, all of which surely compromise our immune systems. It seems like there’s a bug getting passed around at almost every tournament stop and personally I’d estimate I go home with a cold nearly half the time.

Live poker may or may not resume before we have a vaccine for the coronavirus and/or it has been effectively eradicated. My personal instinct is that it would be better if it did not, especially the sort of international events that people travel for. But it is possible to imagine a world in which the virus is largely contained with only intermittent flare ups and people feel comfortable resuming. Either way, I expect that players will probably be inclined to be a lot more cautious about spreading illness and some changes will be called for.

Some of what follows may be pretty divisive. For the most part, I don’t have very strong convictions on what should change, but I’d like to get a conversation started about our options.

Masks are likely the first thing on many people’s minds. At a minimum, I think taboos and rules against face coverings are gonna have to go. If a player is more comfortable wearing a mask, it does not seem reasonable for tournament officials to prohibit it or for their peers to give them a hard time. Should wearing masks at the table become standard, expected, or even mandatory? I could go either way on this. I’m currently inclined to think that’s not necessary. If a player is feeling sick and/or coughing and wants to wear a mask to protect others, this should absolutely be encouraged.

In fact, the way we think about playing while infectious probably needs to be reconsidered. When you’ve traveled across the world at significant expense to participate in a tournament, it’s a hard decision to make to skip it because you’re feeling ill. In my nearly 15 years playing live tournaments, I don’t think I’ve ever done it. I’d do my best to cough down my shirt and disinfect my hands regularly, but I wouldn’t even consider taking a day off. I think most of my peers are similar. It’s a somewhat common sight to see players at the table coughing persistently or blowing their nose every few minutes. I think our expectations here should, and can, change.

The poker community is remarkably good at self-policing. If we can all agree that it is poor behavior to register a tournament or show up to a cash game when you know you have a cold or flu, I think we can all hold each other accountable to stop doing this and make a big difference in how much illness is spread at poker events. We could also start scanning people for fevers before letting them play. I’m torn on that measure, but I think the upside is probably worth it.

It seems likely to me that we can make some improvements with the hygiene of the chips, cards, and tables. I don’t really have the technical knowledge to know what makes sense here, so I’d love to get some feedback from any readers who do. I know there are antimicrobial coatings that are used on high touch surfaces in public areas like hand railings and elevator buttons. I don’t know how feasible, effective, or expensive it would be to apply this sort of technology to chips and cards, but it seems worth looking into. Incorporating some kind of sanitizing step in an automatic shuffler box might also have potential. Sanitizing table surfaces with a simple wipe down periodically certainly makes sense.

Perhaps some things could be done differently with the arrangement of tables to give everyone a little more room? Larger, rounder tables with a maximum of 6 or 7 players might allow everyone closer to two meters distance from each other’s faces.

Would it be realistic to get away from the standard 30 minute dealer down? 1-2 hour downs, with a few minutes rather than a few seconds break before moving to a new table, might allow dealers to deal to 2-4 times fewer players per day and give them time to wash their hands before the start of each down. I suspect there may be good reasons for the 30 minute down that I’m overlooking and welcome feedback from dealers and floor managers about whether or not this is actually feasible.

Finally, if we really want to take seriously the goal of reducing the spread of illness at poker events, I think we need to start thinking holistically about how to make them healthier places. For the last few years, the typical major live poker festival has meant playing 10 or so consecutive days for up to 14 hours a day. Play frequently concludes around 2am and then resumes at noon. It can be hard to find 8 hours a night to devote to sleep, and when you factor in time to unwind after playing and disruptions due to jet lag, I think a lot of people average only 5 hours or so.

We often have little choice other than to eat at the table, and the food options can be pretty unhealthy. I think it’s worth considering what we might change to relax the pace of these events a little and give the participants, staff as well as players, greater opportunity to take care of themselves.

I would love to see a guarantee of 12 hours between conclusion and resumption of play. This strikes me as the minimum to afford time to eat, unwind, sleep, bathe, and eat again without being frantic the whole time.

The food situation at the typical live poker tournament could probably be improved. Eating at the table might have to go. I love eating at the table, because it helps me maximize my hours per day spent playing poker, but it’s pretty unhygienic. If you’re trying not to even touch your face while you’re at the table, you certainly can’t be eating. Organizers could do a lot to take players’ food needs more seriously. Poker tournaments could be scheduled such that it’s possible to eat three meals a day, none of them at the table. You could start earlier than the typical noon or 2pm, have a catered lunch break, and conclude before all of the restaurants are closed so people can eat a normal dinner instead of late-night-menu room service.

It’s entirely possible I’m overestimating this effect and the changes aren’t worth it, but I can’t help thinking that better rested, better fed players would get sick much less often. It also just might make the live tournament experience more enjoyable to a broader range of people.

Anyway I’m curious what people make of all of the above ideas. It’s a conversation we’re going to need to have before we all get back to the felt, so we might as well get started. Give me a holler on twitter, @ikepoker, if you’ve got any thoughts.

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